Best Of :: Food & Drink
A visit to Carolina's is nearly a religious experience, one that's catholic, with a little "c," meaning it's almost universal in its appeal. Park yourself in front of the main entrance to the dingy, warehouse-like structure with its school-cafeteria tables and chairs, and you'll see what we mean. Every sort of person, regardless of class or ethnicity, walks through those doors: a businessman in wrap-around sunglasses, and a construction worker on a lunch break; a pregnant woman by herself, and a student on his way home from school; the fat man with food on his shirt, and the primly dressed grandma back from a church social; a mother with an entire brood surrounding her, and an indigent fellow who's scraped enough together for a bite to eat. They all place their orders at the main counter surrounded by a garish red-and-white menu, take their numbers, and sit politely waiting to be called. It's an amazing cross section of humanity, mostly brought here by the same thing: Mama Carolina's tortillas. Maybe the fat guy wants a machaca with egg, or the pregnant lady, a green chile burrito. The student, a chicken enchilada, and the homeless man, a cheese tortilla. But they're almost all wrapped in or are accompanied by those magnificent flour tortillas, as light as air, slightly chewy, and somewhat smoky. They have corn tortillas, too, but it's those flour ones that we revere above all else. No wonder Carolina's sells thousands a day.
The coffee at Lux is superb, but that's not what keeps the place packed. Instead, it's the super-cool vibe you find in the patrons and the decor. Both are downtown chic, looking straight out of New York or San Francisco, rather than central Phoenix. But no, here they are, the intelligentsia of Phoenix -- city council people canoodling with artists, architects hanging with academics -- thinking big thoughts and making big plans on the hip, low white vinyl chairs. There are some out there who have started boycotting Lux, saying the snooty staff is a buzz kill. It's true, we've felt the chill from behind the counter. But we figure it's just cuz the folks at Lux are so much cooler than we are. And we're willing to live with that, in exchange for a really good latte.
Readers' Choice: Starbucks
Sportsman's is the largest volume, single location, independent wine retailer in the state's history, which doesn't begin to tell the story. The 20 staff people have a combined 250 years' experience with the sauce, and that includes two certified wine specialists and three certified sommeliers. This might explain why Bon Appètit magazine selected Sportsman's as one of the top 50 wine shops in America. Michael Fine added Arizona's first wine bar to the retail operation in 1993, which became a runaway hit with everyone from Tesseract moms to singles looking to avoid the obviousness of the meet market. This winter Michael will open up a second shop on the west side at Arrowhead Ranch.
We can't pronounce most of the names on the shelves of this little central Phoenix market, but we know it's the place we go when we want the most delicious lemon soup we've ever had. Or the freshest pita, or tastiest kebabs and tandoori chicken salad. The Middle Eastern Bakery, which has been around for years and, lucky for us, has endured recent face-lifts, has a wide selection of spices and hard-to-find items like Turkish coffee. We keep coming back for the rice pudding -- and vowing that one of these days, we'll pick up one of the cookbooks for sale and put all those items on the shelves to good use. Until then, we'll take home some hummus.
As that sage philosopher Butt-head once remarked to his pal Beavis, "Variety is the spice of life, dillweed!" We couldn't agree more. Maybe that's why we think Lee Lee Oriental Supermarket is one of the coolest places on Earth. The 52,000-square-foot bazaar includes delicacies from all over the planet, and you could literally spend a lifetime just checking out all the funky items offered. There are beers from Thailand, China, Singapore and Japan; a selection of ice creams you'll never find in Fry's, such as Chinese-style, lychee-nut flavored, and taro (purple yam) ice cream from the Philippines; a butcher's section featuring oxtail and pork uterus; a fish department that offers live catfish and golden carp, as well as fresh skate wings and baby octopus; and a produce aisle with tamarind from Thailand, tiny Indian eggplants, and Korean melons, to name but a few. Beavis and Butt-head, however, would probably enjoy the hot deer jerky and the prepared squid balls best. "Heh-heh, he said balls . . ."
Here's a little-known fact: Japan has the coolest convenience stores in the world. Shelves brimming with colorful goods in irresistible packaging -- whimsical bags of candy in flavors like peach, yogurt and soda pop, a mind-boggling array of canned iced teas and energy drinks, fancy bottles of sake, pastel bottles of shampoo, and all the ingredients you'd need to make comfort foods like yakisoba (noodles) or tonkatsu (pork cutlet) -- they make shopping for necessities into a full-blown adventure.
Although we'll probably never stop wishing that Phoenix 7-Elevens were more like their Japanese counterparts, we're quite satisfied with Fujiya's Tokyo oasis in Tempe. It's not just the place to get our fix of ultra-minty, caffeinated Black Black chewing gum, squishy white bread in rectangular loaves, or mochi-covered ice cream. Around noontime, it's also a pit stop for freshly made -- and affordable -- sushi and boxed lunches. To scary mini-market nachos and withered hot dogs, we say, "Never again!"
There's nothing fancy about the inside of Barb's Bakery -- except the baked goods. We love to ooh and aah over the fake wedding cake samples, and we buy the iced sugar cookies (the house specialty is flowers, but they'll make any shape you want, if you bring them a cookie cutter, and we've never come up with a color scheme they won't accommodate) by the dozen. The cupcakes are perfect specimens, as are the tarts, and if you don't want fancy, Barb's will accommodate you with the basics, like chocolate chip cookies.
About the only thing Barb's doesn't do is low-carb. And thank goodness for that!
Readers' Choice: Brownie Connection
If you've ever visited Japan or lived in a city with its own Japanese enclave, then you may be familiar with the delights of a Japanese bakery, wherein one can experience the uniquely Japanese take on certain Western baked goods as well as more traditional Japanese pan, or bread stuffed with any number of items. Arai Pastry is a perfect example of one of these, and is a terrific addition to the strip mall at the southeast corner of Priest and University in Tempe that also includes the Fujiya Market, the Japanese grocery store where you can rent a Japanese-language TV show on video while you're stocking up on sake. Arai mostly does takeout or pre-orders, but it does have a couple of tables where you can sit and drink espresso or iced coffee with your green-tea mousse or Japanese-style flan (more like a pudding than the Mexican cr'me caramel). Also for sale are loaves of Japanese bread (sliced extra-thick), crepes, clairs, cookies, cheesecakes, wedding and birthday cakes, an pan (a bun filled with sweet red beans), niki pan (filled with cooked pork), and UFOs, a pastry made of melon bread and filled with custard.
We called, we drove, we'd barely stopped the car when a cute guy with a big bag emerged from the back door of Bandera, and plunked an entire chicken in our laps. We love Bandera for the peanut coleslaw and the grilled artichokes, but mostly, we love the flying chicken park-and-pick-up system. Screw the Colonel. Pass the cornbread.
We can't help but hate Sofia Coppola. Not only is she one of the hottest young film directors around, she gets to date all the cool guys. And her dad is Francis Ford Coppola, which was neat to begin with, but then he started a winery, and that was nice, but now the coup de grâce: He's named a wine after her. And not just any wine, a sparkling wine (technically you can't call it Champagne, since it doesn't come from France, but still). The best part, for us (and let's be honest, isn't it always?), is the packaging. This wine comes in a bottle with pretty pink cellophane, but our favorite way to drink Sofia is in a can -- a raspberry pink can that comes complete with a bendable straw.
Ah, but we digress. We can't be Sofia Coppola (although we wonder what Spike Jonze is doing at the moment), but at least we can find her in a can, even in Phoenix.
Cost Plus may be a chain, but it's a chain worth celebrating. The store features cases of canned Sofia -- along with an admirable selection of "real" wine for those of us too shy to venture into a "real" wine shop. The cavernous place also features the best collection of baskets in town, gifts and great snack items.
Now you'll have to excuse us. We have a date with a copy of Lost in Translation and a case of Sofia.
Unbridled turophilia, otherwise known as the love of cheese, knows almost no bounds. There seems to be an endless line of cheeses, endless variations upon variations, thereby proving the truth of what writer and critic Clifton Fadiman said when he called cheese "milk's leap toward immortality." Milk is milk, and can't change much while still remaining so. Cheese, by comparison, is almost an open-ended concept, and yet we come in contact with so few types in our everyday grocery runs. Leave it to a public servant to give us a choice of an array of cheeses, everything from Spanish goat cheese and blue French fromage to English Cheddar and Humboldt Fog from California. The servant in question is state Senator Ken Cheuvront, whose wine and cheese bar gets our vote for the best cheese selection. With scores of gourmet Artisanal cheeses on offer and an equally impressive list of vino, Senator Cheuvront's nosherie is a significant contribution to the local restaurant scene. Long may you cut the cheese, Senator! And may you forever be known as Phoenix's King of Curds.
Guadalupe not only has the distinction of being Phoenix's smallest suburb, but it's also the East Valley's favorite barrio. Residents from Chandler and Tempe come to the town for its shops and restaurants -- or maybe just to see how the other half lives. In any case, one of the more popular destinations is this rustic produce depot, with its bountiful piles of fresh fruits and vegetables with choices ranging from the more vanilla standards of a one-stop harvest shop -- such as Granny Smith apples or golden peaches -- to more obscure selections, like yucca root. Suburbanite gringos arrive in their SUVs, clad in D-Backs wear, bragging on their cell phones about the great deals they're getting on the different kinds of chiles for sale -- from habaneros to serranos -- some of which are roasted outside in a rotating grill. Others inspect the crisp leaves of bunches of cilantro and organic herbs, looking for any sign of wilt or wither.
Frankly, at night this 'hood's not so safe. But in broad daylight, on any given weekend, it's only a threat to your local supermarket.